At this point I think it's safe to say that both Harmonix and Neversoft are good at making rock games. We may argue over who does it best, but no matter which rhythm game people buy this fall, they won't feel cheated. You can see the polish throughout Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, the sixth installment (assuming you're not counting the spin-offs, band games, portable titles, etc.). Unfortunately, fans of the long-running series will likely feel a little letdown by the lack of noticeable improvements in this sequel.
Guitar Hero has always been good for a cheesy story, and Warriors of Rock won't let you down. The good news is that this story mode more closely ties into the characters, fleshing out the guitar heroes you've come to know and love over the last few years. The player will go from one character to the next playing songs until they have enough points to transform into the gnarly warrior that has been trapped inside all this time.
The eight characters all represent a different music style, which at least gives players an acceptable reason to rock out as each of the musicians. The match-ups make a lot of sense -- British import Johnny has a venue of punk, Judy Nails has a set list of alternative rock and Lars brings the aggressive heavy metal. Once the player has earned enough stars, the character will be mutated into what can only be described as the comic book superhero of rock. It's here that they will need to complete an encore and it will be time to move on to the next character.
What sets these eight characters apart is their special ability, a modifier that changes the way the player earns stars. For example, one character will give you a shield to protect you from missed notes, while another will add 5% juice to the star power gauge every time the player gets ten notes in a row. When the character mutates these powers are amplified, creating a nearly unstoppable rock monster. This is more than just a throwaway addition, these abilities come in to play when the eight characters have to team up to beat the game's multiple bosses.
Warriors of Rock has the making for another great Guitar Hero installment, yet there's something about the game that rubs me the wrong way. For starters, I'm not a big fan of this year's set list. The game sports a whopping 93 songs, the most of any rhythm game. Early on it looks like there's going to be a diverse play list, but sadly that is not the case. Far too often the game veers into heavy metal territory. The entire second half of the story mode is nothing more than one thrasher after another. From Tesla to DragonForce, Anthrax to Avenged Sevenfold, Atreyu to Slipknot. After awhile it got to be a bit daunting. All of my favorite bands and songs were used up within the first few hours, leading to a non-stop parade of headache-inducing noise that I'm still trying to shake out of my memory.
When the game isn't growling at you with an overabundance of metal, there are some great bands to round out the catalog. We get great songs from The Cure, Muse, Stone Temple Pilots, Phoenix, R.E.M., Foo Fighters, Rolling Stones, The White Stripes and many more. But those are all bands we've seen in music games before; I didn't notice any brand new standouts this time around. No Led Zeppelin, U2 or Pink Floyd. It's also disappointing (though not completely unexpected) that many of my favorite songs, I already own in the competing Rock Band games. I suppose that's just the nature of the music industry.If there's one bright spot, it's the inclusion of Rush's incredible 2112 album. This 40 minute concept album is split up into seven songs, each narrated by the band. Best of all, this section of the game is set on a backdrop unlike anything else in Guitar Hero. There are trees and clouds, water and a statue. It's a surreal experience that manages to capture the essence of Rush. Sadly it's over all too quickly and we're back to a ho-hum second half of the game.
Beyond the soundtrack (which will no doubt appeal to a lot of gamers), Warriors of Rock is guilty of playing it safe. Everything that is good about this brand new installment was also true about the 2009 model. There are no big innovations here; it's just the same game with a different list of songs. Everything you've come to know and love from a Guitar Hero game is here, as polished as ever. But there's nothing new, it's practically a carbon copy of the games that came before it.
Any other year Neversoft might be able to get away with repackaging the same game, but not this year. This year Harmonix is introducing a bevy of new Rock Band instruments, including a keyboard and a real guitar. And it's not just Rock Band; Seven 45 Studios' Power Gig also uses a real electric guitar that can be used in your crappy garage band. Regardless of whether these developers deliver on what they promise, at least they're trying something new.
I see that Guitar Hero still hasn't figured out a compelling way to introduce the downloadable content and spin-off game imports. You can play these songs in the quick play mode, but that's about it. In Rock Band's world tour mode the extra content enhances the game in every way, adding better setlists and mystery gigs. But there's nothing like that in Guitar Hero. Instead you the developers expect you to be content with just playing it. If Activision wants to compete with Rock Band's online music store, they're going to need to rethink the way they present this content in their games.
As I finished up playing through the quest mode, I was ready to give this game a higher score. The game looks good, it has a lot of music and there are enough options to keep most rock fans happy for a long time to come. But then I remembered 2009. I remember playing through Guitar Hero: Metallica, Van Halen, Smash Hits, a numbered sequel and Band Hero. There were five installments to make, no wonder the developers didn't have time to innovate. But this year Warriors of Rock is all alone (unless you count DJ Hero 2). This was the year they could have innovated, like the competition, but they chose to release another Guitar Hero 5.
There's no mystery to Warriors of Rock. If you like the franchise and heavy metal music, then this is the game for you. I didn't find the sound track to be especially riveting and I'm hard pressed to come up with any exciting new enhancements, but that doesn't keep it from offering a lot of songs and a compelling story mode. Maybe it's time for Guitar Hero to take a year off and regroup, because I expect to be wowed the next time around.